“Great Horned Owl, Male, Bubo virginianus”
Read the sign on the large cage.
Inside, a layered stack of gray-brown plumage
Sat perched on a wooden post.
A sudden disruption
From the other side of the nature center
Roused the napping nocturnal one
And caused avian lids to lift.
At once, the mass became a bird:
With a beak designed solely for ripping
And tripled talons that, if not for their grip on the bar,
Could otherwise shred me like junk mail.
His white bib and upright ear tuffs brought to mind
A number of tabby cats in my past.
As if to banish that thought,
The owl ruffled his feathers
And stretched his wings – even the injured one –
And left no doubt as to his identity.
A visitor to the side coughed gently,
And the animal’s head swiveled toward the sound
Like the lid on a mayonnaise jar.
No one moved.
We were statues in his fancy garden.
Spying nothing of interest,
He turned instead to face me.
For an instant our pupils locked
And I was invisibly eviscerated by a predator’s scrutiny.
Meeting that amber stare (somehow both aloof and intense),
I could only stand frozen, my spine quickly fused,
Insecure in the knowledge that bigger did not mean stronger.
And in that moment, a measure of wildness passed between us;
Dissolving the thin wire mesh dividing “free” from “not”
And making us temporary equals on Planet Earth.
Those seconds became eons,
And the history of the world flew past, fast-forward,
Culminating in that nature center court,
Evolving into human and bird.
Seeing no worthy prey,
His gaze grew drowsy,
And he settled again into a daytime doze.
With our connection cut,
I was released from his hold
And could stumble the rest of the way down the path.
He had already forgotten me.
I was just one of the blurred hundreds
That passed by him this year.
But I will not soon forget him.
Whenever I walk in the woods at dusk
And hear his cousins call —
Hoo, hoo-hoo-hooooo —
His eyes will return to bore into my soul,
And I will be relieved, once again,
To not have been born a mouse.
Corinne H. Smith is a writer and a poet who worked as a librarian for more than 30 years. She is the author of “Westward I Go Free: Tracing Thoreau’s Last Journey,” the first book to follow American author Henry David Thoreau’s 1861 trip from Massachusetts to Minnesota. She writes memoir and nature pieces as well as book and music reviews for a variety of outlets. She has participated in public poetry readings in both Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. She currently lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. You can catch up with her at www.corinnehsmith.com.